Recently while preparing for an upcoming tour of the Kelly’s Ford battlefield, I was reading through A History of the First Regiment of Massachusetts Cavalry Volunteers by Benjamin Crowninshield. One of their officers, Maj. Samuel Chamberlain, played a critical role in the opening phase of the engagement. Thumbing through the narrative for background information on Chamberlain, something stood out to me. New to the Army of the Potomac, the 1st Massachusetts was not ready to take the field at the outset of the 1862 Maryland Campaign.
The regiment spent the early stages of the conflict at Hilton Head, South Carolina. With combat escalating in Virginia through the summer of 1862, two of the regiment’s three battalions were ordered north. On August 19, the troopers embarked on transports. 280 of the regiment’s horses went into the hold of an old cotton ship. Casting out into the Atlantic, the regiment headed for Fort Monroe, but was rerouted to Aquia Creek and then finally to Alexandria where they arrived on September 1.
As anyone who has visited or lived in Virginia can attest, August is extremely hot and humid. The conditions during the nearly two week journey took a heavy toll on the horses. One battalion had landed briefly at Aquia Creek and Col. Robert William had taken a squadron on a reconnaissance to Fredericksburg. Otherwise the mounts had very little exercise during their journey. Many were unable to stand when it was time to disembark.
From Alexandria, the regiment marched through Washington and entered Maryland. In South Carolina, the troopers had grown accustomed to warm and mild weather. The weather, however, turned cool. The Bay Staters found that that their heavy baggage, along with their tents, had not been unloaded. Clothing, especially socks and boots were in short supply. Additionally, due to the sandy conditions of South Carolina, the horses were unshod and were left to travel the rocky roads without shoes.
The 1st Massachusetts was in no condition to take the field but the situation warranted. Following his victory over Maj. Gen. John Pope at Second Manassas, Robert E. Lee decided to take his Army of Northern Virginia onto Northern soil. Major General George B. McClellan countered by moving his Army of the Potomac into Maryland to protect Washington. On September 5, then Captain Chamberlain led a patrol toward Poolesville in an effort to locate the Confederates. Upon reaching the hamlet, the Federals ran into elements from Brig. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee’s brigade. The ensuing engagement was a disaster. Sympathetic residents to the Confederates had placed obstacles in the streets. When Lee gained the upper hand, the regiment was forced to retreat but were hindered by the impediments. Thirty blue troopers were captured during the skirmish, including Chamberlain.
A week after the Poolesville debacle, the regiment reached Frederick but problems persisted. It had been twelve days since rations had been issued. The men were forced to live off the land. Due to the lack of forage, troopers were forced to feed their mounts corn stalks which contributed to a case of “greased heel”. Accordingly, the regiment was relegated to a reserve role as McClellan moved west toward South Mountain. On September 17, the opposing armies met along the banks of Antietam Creek. While the infantry slugged it out, McClellan relegated his cavalry to a secondary role. At the end of the battle, Lee elected to abandon his position and withdrew to Virginia.
At the end of September, the 1st Massachusetts was ordered to Hagerstown to rest and refit. The lack of serviceable horses prompted the War Department to grant permission to Col. Williams to purchase them locally. The regimental stores that had been shipped from South Carolina remained in Washington. Around it, the quartermaster department built a depot with new recruits and paroled soldiers. On November 14, the regiment marched east and camped two days later at the Seventh Street Park. There they were finally issued new clothing and equipment.
The ordeal, however, helped to season the regiment and prepared them for the rigors of campaigning to come. Although reduced by casualties, expiration of enlistments and detached duty over the long term, the 1st Massachusetts became one of the more reliable volunteer regiments in the Union cavalry corps. In May, 1865, its veterans marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in the Grand Review.